When we’re talking about 15 percent of Americans, we’re talking about nearly 50 million people, the populations of California and New Jersey combined. It’s a lot of people. And that, according to new research published by PRRI on Thursday, is the number of Americans who say they believe the most out-there components of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
PRRI’s findings come from a survey conducted with IFYC in which they asked people specifically about components of QAnon. For example, they presented this exact statement, which is often presented as the most extreme iteration of the conspiracy theory’s belief system:
“The government, media and financial world in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”
And it was with that, that specific belief, that 15 percent of respondents said they agreed.
On two other statements, similar levels of agreement emerged. When the pollsters asked if Americans agreed that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders” — again, a theme in QAnon — 1-in-5 said they did. On a more alarming proposition, that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” the level of agreement was again 15 percent.
This is a really surprising level of support for fundamentally baseless or anti-democratic sentiment. But, as you might expect, it’s also not evenly distributed. Republicans, for example, are more likely to agree with the statements above than are Democrats. Those who say they have the most trust in Fox News as a news source generally agree with the statements about as much as Republicans do, which makes sense given the overlap of those two groups.
The media consumers who stand out the most, though, are those who give the most trust to far-right networks like One America News or Newsmax. Among those respondents, at least 4-in-10 agreed with the idea of a satanic cabal and nearly half believed that a storm was coming.
Those are really staggering numbers. It’s been clear for some time that far-right media is fertile soil for conspiracy theories, given the often-loose relationship they have to objective fact. One America News in particular has been shown to be promoting false claims repeatedly. So it’s not surprising OAN viewers appear to be more likely to believe the most ridiculous components of QAnon.
What isn’t clear is the direction in which causality points. Is it the case that One America and Newsmax viewers are more likely to believe in QAnon because of the networks’ coverage? Or do people who are sympathetic to the QAnon conspiracy theory instead find themselves more drawn to those networks. After the 2020 presidential election, we saw some self-selection along those lines as some viewers (encouraged by Donald Trump) abandoned Fox News and its insistence on accurately reporting Trump’s loss in favor of Newsmax or OAN where the election was falsely presented as still unsettled.
That’s a key point in all of this. One of the developments that followed the splintering of the media ecosystem with the emergence of social media is that audiences for ideas more easily formed independently of any organization. There could easily emerge a sentiment held by millions of people into which media outlets could tap, preformed audiences looking for someone to agree with them. This isn’t only true of false conspiracy theories, but for any institution willing to cede objectivity to advertising dollars, it proved useful. So you get entities willing to coddle false claims in an effort to gain attention.
“At the end of the day, it’s great for news,” Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy said of Trump’s false stolen-election claims last November. “The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.”
There was a market for nonsense and Newsmax was happy to step in.
What the PRRI survey also found, though, was QAnon believers didn’t limit their conspiracy theorizing to simply satanic cabals or political violence. They were also more likely to believe false or unfounded claims about the 2020 election and about the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s just this muddle of false assertions swirling in a truth-indifferent universe. There are millions of people who want to believe what they want to believe and there are media outlets that cater to that, perhaps reinforcing or expanding those false belief systems. Only a small fraction of Americans say they most trust far-right networks like Newsmax and One America, according to PRRI: that block constituted 3 percent of respondents.
Which, again, is about 10 million people.